Growing wasabi in Iceland with geothermal heat

When Óli Hall dined at a sushi restaurant while visiting Boston recently, he brought his own wasabi. Hall, the sales and marketing director for Icelandic company Nordic Wasabi, knows that the small green dollop typically served alongside a tuna roll is usually just a mix of horseradish, mustard, and food dye. Real wasabi is just too expensive for most restaurants to keep in stock. But since he tried the real deal, he’s been spoiled for anything else.

Based in Egilsstaðir, on Iceland’s east coast, Nordic Wasabi was founded by Ragnar Atli Tómasson and Johan Sindri Hansen. The company cultivates wasabi from one of the world’s most advanced greenhouses—one that runs purely on sustainable energy. In 2015, the then engineering students at the University of Iceland were enrolled in a business model class and had never tasted real wasabi. By the end of the project, they founded Jurt Hydroponics to focus on growing it full-time.

Wasabi, or Japanese horseradish, is a flowering plant, with a stem that can be grated to make a piquant paste—a condiment that’s most commonly served with sushi. Historically grown in riverbeds in Japan, it's also notoriously one of the world’s most difficult and expensive plants to grow commercially. The process is time-consuming (plants can take up to three years to fully mature) and labor-intensive.

Because it requires a lot of clean water and controlled temperatures, cultivating the plant isn’t easily viable for greenhouses in continental Europe or the U.S., either, due to the high cost of water and heating. But Iceland, with its concentration of volcanoes, is one of the leading producers of geothermal energy in the world, i.e. a renewable energy source produced by naturally occurring heat under the earth’s surface.

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